Anne Arundel County fire 911 operators switched away from 10- and 14-hour shifts to a 24-hour schedule Thursday amid hopes it will battle fatigue, though filling rotations will require overtime.
County Fire Chief Trisha Wolford said the operators sought a change in the shift they had been operating under. They had been working two 10-hour day shifts followed by two 14-hour night shifts, with 24 hours off in between the day and night switch. Operators had complained it was difficult to adjust between day and night shifts so quickly.
“The operators said (they) want to come off of 10s and 14s. They said they can’t get a sleep pattern and are exhausted,” Wolford said.
The potential change has been discussed for a few years; there was even a trial run under the previous chief Michael Cox. Wolford came on a year ago and decided to make the move.
“I ask myself two questions on these issues: Is it good for the common good? And is it good for my members? If I can say yes to both, I’ll do it.”
Wolford said the move could help with operator retention, which plagues fire departments nationwide.
Mike Akers, president of AFSCME Local 582, said the issue was put to a vote.
“And it passed overwhelmingly. We are in open communication with the fire department. We meet about quarterly to go over the good, the bad and the ugly of this.”
He said there is a means to make changes to the arrangement if there are safety issues identified. If that does not work, there is always the grievance procedure.
Fire communications operators take about 400,000 calls a year, an average of 1,095 calls a day. Of those, 240 are dispatched for service.
Operators can be on the phone giving CPR instructions, helping someone deliver a baby on the side of the road, or trying to calm a hysterical caller to get the vital information required to save a life. They also help keep track of responders’ safety during a major incident.
Being fully alert and able to make split-second decisions every time the phone rings is crucial to public safety. One operator that spoke to The Capital said they were concerned the longer hours could lead to mistakes.
“They can’t believe working those kinds of hours is that healthy,” said one county operator who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation. “What if I make a mistake? It could mean somebody’s life.”
Where the 24-hour shift change could potentially become a problem, both in added stress and cost, is in overtime.
Current staffing is inadequate to provide the seven operators required to meet the minimum staffing per shift. There are four shifts. One has six operators, the other three have five.
Each four-day rotation will require seven overtime shifts to meet the minimum staffing, fire officials confirmed.
While the regular staff is free to take on the overtime, and some look forward to it, there is a potential scenario where — after working a 24-hour shift — an operator could be held over into another shift. Wolford agreed it was possible, but a department staffer will be attempting to find relief as soon as possible.
two supervisors on each shift keep a close eye on operators and can identify if someone needs a break, Wolford said.
The new shift structure provides a one-hour break during the daytime portion of the 24-hour shift, and five hours at night. Two bunk rooms with two beds each have been built to allow the operators to get a nap. Plus there will be a lounge area and access to a workout room.
The break schedule is flexible, Wolford said. If the call rate is slow, breaks can be extended.
Conversely, if the call center gets busy the operators can be called off-break. Even if they get the allotted breaks, the operator will be working 18 hours in a shift. And depending on the timing of the longer nighttime breaks, operators could be working over 16 hours with only an hour break.
And then there is the cost of the overtime. Wolford said currently county taxpayers won’t be paying the overtime bill because funding in the budget for the seven operator positions still to be filled covers the overtime cost.
“I have wages of vacant positions, … that offsets the overtime. Once we are fully staffed that will change,” Wolford said.
The department has three potential operators in training currently who should be manning call stations by May. The county is recruiting another four who should be ready by the fall, Wolford said.
There are firefighters trained to work as operators who can also help cover the unfilled shifts.
Wolford is determined to give the change a chance.
“Our operators really are the first of the first responders. They really are the unsung heroes of public safety,” Wolford said. “They are doing so much the public does not realize.”
She thinks if the operators want the 24 hour on/72 hour off shift “Let’s try this for them. It does not mean we can’t go back.”